Happy Feb. 11, everyone! The United Nations General Assembly in September 2015 declared Feb. 11 the International Day of Women and Girls in Science “to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.”
Now in its fourth year, the event is going strong. Many of us will be participating in the day’s events around the world that showcase the key role that women play in tackling the challenges that face the world now and in the future. These events are a good reminder that their participation in science should be encouraged and strengthened.
There is no doubt that we have come a long way in a relatively short period of time in history. Last summer I gave a presentation at an event organized by the European Young Chemists’ Network, and it was interesting to compare my view of the speed of the integration of women in the workplace with the views of the audience, who on average were probably two decades younger. For example, in the year and country I was born (1974, Spain), my mother, as a married woman, was not permitted to hold a job and couldn’t open a bank account or apply for a passport without her husband’s permission. Fast-forward to 2019, and that scenario looks nonsensical and completely outdated in the eyes of a millennial.
Still, progress feels slow. Sure, women can now open their own bank accounts, but although they represent half the world’s population, in many parts of the globe they continue to be excluded from participating in and contributing to the economy. In those parts where they are not excluded, there is still a tremendous amount of work to do toward achieving gender equality. In many developed countries, equal access and opportunities are some way off. And so is eradicating the pay gap.
From a scientific perspective, there is a sense of urgency to empower women and girls so they can stand up and be counted. It’s not only that their contributions to progress are sometimes ignored or overlooked; there is a real problem in terms of access and participation. The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization reports that only around 30% of female students select science- or engineering-related fields in higher education, which means they are not getting into the scientific marketplace. When we look at how many choose a career in research in particular, females represent just 30% of researchers worldwide, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
Feb. 11 provides an opportunity to reflect and commit to take some action on a personal level. One thing we could all do is be mindful of stereotypes and influence how our children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces perceive various professions. It is still often the case that textbooks, advertising, and films, for example, reflect traditional gender roles, as scientists or explorers are generally portrayed by men.
Feb. 12 is another day for celebration, as it has been chosen by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry as the date for a series of global breakfasts commemorating its centennial, which incidentally coincides with the International Year of the Periodic Table. The event is titled Empowering Women in Chemistry: A Global Networking Event, and it is designed to “assist women chemists to expand their network of contacts” and encourage women to “together explore opportunities, in professional development and in research or teaching horizons.”
This week offers a chance to recognize the value of women and girls in science. I hope we can continue to celebrate throughout the year.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.